By Guest Blogger, Katharine Sands, Sarah Jane Freymann Agency
Pitching in a nutshell is about finding the right words and getting the right person to read them. Often referred to as the elevator pitch, the term has two meanings: 1) You might be on the elevator and happen to meet an agent (or producer) so you want to have your pitch perfected. 2) You have something to say that gets you a “yes” and “the yes might mean to read you, or to be given a card and an invitation to follow-up – accomplished in the time in takes to ride the elevator. Whether you are in an elevator, at a dinner party, at a writers’ conference, it also means be energetic, dynamic, hurry up and get to the point. The best pitches give off sparks, create a moment, or pose a provocative question, just to give a taste of the project. In my book, Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye, my colleague, Sarah Jane Freymann says “If you are able to sum up your entire book with a title or one-line description, that’s gold.”
Why is pitching your work so important? Because whether it is for nonfiction, boomer or chick or hen non-fic, reality fiction, faction, nonfiction, stunt memoir, creative memoir, fratire or femoir… it’s the pitch and nothing but the pitch that gets an agent’s attention.
Yes, agents are looking to connect with your work. We read to zero in on the Zeitgeist, seek sales engines and to identify the salient points for the primary audience, the ideal, intended audience, be engaged by the all-important voice and to determine the answer to two pressing questions: Why you? Why now? We deconstruct pitches with the precision of surgeons. We are looking to diagnose the project, and to make a prognosis for the author’s potential …we can only take in elements, spoonfuls of information. A pitch is not the beginning of your book, it is the introduction to your potential as an author.
Many nonfiction writers and other kinds of professionals wonder why there is such a relentless emphasis on platforming a book…
Publishers need to know from the get-go why your book appeals to readers and how much built-in media interest the book has; the biggest buzzword in the media and publishing world is “platform.”
The industry is very much in transition. LA-based agents have taken the term literary manager to cover the new roles agents play. Agents are acting, in effect, as producers, and taking a more hands-on role in developing an author for the media, and in developing the author’s brand. And agents source talent everywhere…I have contacted writers based on reading airline magazines, bloggers, ad campaigns, brochures and twitterati. Today content from a book is used online, in podcasts, in products, in digital media….from the agent’s point of view, it helps to proudly introduce a client with an e-mail of the author-to-be on YouTube or with accompanying footage demonstrating the expertise of the potential author…footage showing the author in action makes a huge difference in breaking in a new writer. I like to stress how the author will succeed with their book through promotional possibilities and personality. Today we want a full package — writing talent plus promotional efforts. Agents are looking for people who can shine in the spotlight…not slink in the shadows…
The guiding principle is to remember that agents are looking first for a reason to keep reading, then for a reason to represent you…you want your pitch to give crystal clear answers – fast.
Your Query Letter
Imagine you are Atticus Finch arguing for the life of an innocent. Because you are. From the agent’s point of view, your query letter is a plea for life. To get an agent to read past the first few paragraphs your letter must really hit home. A perfect pitch is one that shows talent and content and quality and ingredient X.
What would you say if you were on Oprah? What would you want your listeners, your readers to know about your work? It is always best to lead with strongest points first. Imagine you have five minutes on TV to talk about your book — what are the most engaging, intriguing, seductive or powerful messages or narrative arcs you want to get across?
For a narrative or memoir, think of your pitch as a movie trailer—imagine your setting, your world, your universe for someone who has not lived in it before. You, the writer, are a camera. Put the camera on you, but so we can see…Have you told a story arc? “It starts here, ends there.” A book is a ride, and memoir needs to read as compellingly as fiction.
There is a golden rule in pitching: Show, Don’t Tell. When you hold out a promise to a reader…you want to use the pitch to deliver enough of the flavor of the book to whet the reader’s appetite for more…
Remember your book is on trial. Indeed, an acquisitions editorial meeting is a trial for life for your work. Offer evidence, statistics, sources of recent articles? Point out why readers want this book. Argue your case. What are the benefits or insights or experiences or observations for the reader? What do I do differently after I read your book, what would I not understand or figure out without you? You compete with all of the other information sources: the Internet, other authors, sources and literati.
Many nonfiction writers consider self-publishing. Self-publishing works for you some ways, but against you in others. If you have a means of promoting and selling your book through your own marketing efforts you might accrue numbers of books sold (and better profits than being published by a trade publisher). You might be reviewed, get media attention and so on. If you show a strong track record, a larger entity might want to take the project to the next level, and re-publish, or distribute the book. And, also, the book will quite possibly be the text exactly as you wrote it, no editorial changes whatsoever (which appeals to some authors). Less successful is self-publishing and then shopping the book to agents…because several things kick in 1) Your ISBN# and sales record are tracked, the numbers will not be as high as a leading publisher would like to see. 2) A book from 2002 looks like what the Japanese call “old cake”. It does not look as fresh or current as it might have done five years ago. 3) I presume 58 agents have declined the project prior to self-publishing. Even though we know it may well be untrue, this is a pop-up thought in an agent’s mind. 4) Part of an agent’s job is to locate and secure a publishing contract which always includes the copyright clause. If you have obtained a copyright and ISBN# it signals you might be very difficult to work with – apropos the agency input and the editor’s suggestions which would change the text necessitating a second copyright. We cherry-pick our clients, and want things to progress smoothly and happily for all parties. The previously self-published client brings many complexities to the table, and might prefer to be in complete charge of their book, which self-publishing offers.
To become a full-time nonfiction author consider the following:
1) Authors are paid a book advance by publishers.
Money due from your publishing contract – advanced to you from the ‘book’s bank account’ the publisher sets up for you (called the advance against royalties) – will be paid to you in two or three payments, possibly with the last third on publication. If anything comes up such as a change in delivery date or cataloging the title, your expected advance payment (which you have actually earned) may be delayed.
2) Authors earn royalties
Royalties are paid out twice yearly. If your advance is modest you will expect to earn your income when the book is in royalty. This may take longer than you’d like. It may take time to create buzz, build your author platform, and generate word-of-mouth marketing before you see the title perform.
3) Book sales are unpredictable.
Your book advance will be based on the profit and loss tabulations, research, surveys, bookspan searches that are used to guestimate what the book will earn. If the book advance (or printing) exceeds the sales – no matter how many copies are sold, no matter how well reviewed – the book costs the publisher, and impacts your ability to publish future works.
4) Today’s publishers want author buy-back commitments.
Authors who buy and sell copies of their books outside of trade channels, through grassroots efforts, websites, professional organizations, specialty and retail catalogs, or corporate gifts as deep discount copies for example, are increasingly important to publishers. This can mean investing personal monies up front before recouping through sales of the book.
5) Your author income is separate from your writing dreams.
Income that allows you to quit your day job may come in unexpected and circuitous ways, not the way you anticipated. You may find yourself giving workshops and seminars, participating in readings or academic panels. Many authors are asked to teach, and find new careers in academe. Authors often become go-to girls or go-to guys as talking heads or media experts. A mistake I see authors make is to invest only in The Big Book. Other writing outlets will serve to develop you as a writer and build your platform as an author too.
A literary agent with the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency, Katharine has worked with a varied list of authors who publish a diverse array of books.
She represents a wide range of authors in a broad range of categories: She has handled projects for a wide range of clients who publish a diverse array of books. Nonfiction highlights include: The SAT Word Slam; Taxpertise: Dirty Little Secrets the IRS Doesn’t Want You to Know; The House Handbook; Hands Off My Belly: The Pregnant Woman’s Guide to Myths, Mothers and Moods, The Complete Book of Teenage Plastic Surgery by Dr. Frederick Lukash, XTC: SongStories; Under the Hula Moon (as co-agent); The Tao of Beauty: Chinese Herbal Secrets to Looking Good and Feeling Great by Ford model Helen Lee; Make Up. Don’t Break Up by five-time Oprah guest Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil, Give Me That Online Religion by Dr. Brenda Brasher; Elvis and You: Your Guide to the Pleasures of Being an Elvis Fan; The New Low-Country Cooking by Chef Marvin Woods, The Complete Book on International Adoption: A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Your Child by Dawn Davenport; CityTripping: a Guide for Nighthawks, Foodies, Culture Vultures, Fashion Fetishist, and the Generally Style-Obsessed by Tom Dolby, among many others.
She is the agent provocateur of Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye, a collection of pitching wisdom from leading literary agents. Actively building her client list, she likes books that have a clear benefit for readers’ lives in categories of food, travel, lifestyle, home arts, beauty, wisdom, relationships, parenting, and fresh looks which might be at issues, life challenges or popular culture. For compelling reads in faction, memoir and femoir, she like to be transported to a world rarely or newly observed; for fiction, she wants to be compelled and propelled…
“When writers ask me what I might be looking for in a client I always say ‘fire in the belly’ because as a writer you must always be an impassioned ambassador for your book. To succeed as an author you must find it joyful to share your work with potential readers. It’s comparable to running for office; you must ask for their votes. Today’s authors need marketing moxie more than ever before.”
“How did I choose this career? Well, here is a a vivid moment for me: I went to hippie school in Greenwich Village…(we really did sit cross-legged and sing kumbaya)…and one day the third-grade teacher singled me out, and asked me to read my story aloud to the entire class. From that day to this I have believed creativity and expressiveness are the most exciting things. . .especially when shared.”